02/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Wedgwood Teacups, Child Labor, and Lead Poisoning

The recent news that the British company Waterford Wedgwood (Wedgwood merged with Waterford in 1986) has gone bankrupt stirs some deep waters of unsavory history.

Wedgwood ceramics (teacups, saucers, and so on) have been famous for 250 years. The company was founded by a potter entrepreneur named Josiah Wedgwood in the 18th century. If anyone represented the 18th and 19th century "spirit of capitalism" it was Josiah Wedgwood: intelligent, resourceful, open to new ideas, and a great head for making money.

But before we become too enthusiastic about the entrepreneurial commercial ingenuity of Josiah Wedgwood, we need to take into account that the Wedgwood factories employed boys as young as eight years as assistants to "dippers" in the final process of applying a leaded glaze. The glaze contained lead oxide and lead carbonate, and any contact with the glaze during the manufacturing process resulted in absorption of lead into the body.

Nearly all these children suffered from serious lead poisoning, many of them died before adolescence, and those who did not die had serious neurological consequences. The common symptoms of workers in the Wedgwood factories were colic, convulsions, paralysis of the limbs, blindness, and general emaciation. With lower levels of lead absorption, the consequences for the developing brain of a child could be more subtle but still devastating, since lead is one of the most powerful neurotoxins known.

The adult dippers were also poisoned, but they were less vulnerable than the boys and could work more years before the effects of lead poisoning made them casualties. The poisoning by pottery-making continued until the early 20th century when legislation outlawed the employment of women and children in the glazing process. Before then, women who worked in Wedgwood factories suffered excessive miscarriages, and many of their infants died of "fits" soon after birth.

When Josiah Wedgwood started his factories, lead already had an ancient history as a poison. Was the problem of lead-poisoning known to the Wedgwoods? Yes it was. In 1816, testifying before a government committee on child labor, Josiah Wedgwood II, son of Josiah Wedgwood and head of the company, declared that lead poisoning in his factories was indeed a problem and caused by workers "careless in their method of living and dirty." But the reality was that method of living and dirt were irrelevant: the problem was the simple absorption of lead through the skin of dippers and their child assistants.

What you hear in the media these days is that maybe the employment of pregnant women and children in hazardous occupations in developing countries is not such a bad thing, since without such employment their poverty would be much worse. It seems to me that's a transparent rationalization for what is effectively slavery. In ancient Rome it often happened that a master would free one or more of his slaves, and after a time the slaves would return and work for the master for low wages. The phenomenon is sometimes hailed as an example of how slaves in history sometimes loved their masters. The reality is that most slaves in ancient Rome hated their masters, and if when freed they returned to work in the same house the usual reason was an inability to find work for wages when most work was done by slaves for nothing.

There is no reason to employ pregnant women and children in occupations known to be hazardous other than to exploit the poor. It makes no difference whether the exploitation is by public or private entities -- it is still exploitation of the most tragic kind. People who employ pregnant women and children in hazardous occupations do so because such labor is cheaper than the labor of adult men -- it's a simple matter of maximizing profits. The employers know it, their governments know it, and the rest of us need to know it also.

Wedgwood started using a fritted glaze in the early 20th century, and that for the most part stopped the lead poisoning problem in their factories. As for antique Wedgwood, if you have any of it, the next time you sip tea out of an antique Wedgwood teacup, when you put the cup down on that pretty saucer you might give a thought to the eight-year-old boys who were poisoned in the dipping process. It's a story of teacups for royalty and tombstones for children.